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Now All That’s Left Is To Write It

By - February 07, 2012

For posterity, if nothing else, here’s what my desk looks like at the moment. After a particularly enlightening whiteboard session with Steven Johnson late last week, then further musings on the back of bar menus and borrowed receipt-tape with my wife, and finally after waking up and scribbling notes in the middle of the night, I finally have a working outline of The Next Book. No, it’s not supposed to make much sense. Yet.

Now all I have to do is write it.

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Do You Think The US Government Is Monitoring Social Media?

By - February 03, 2012

I had the news on in the background while performing morning ablutions. It was tuned to CBS This Morning – Charlie Rose has recently joined the lineup and my wife, a former news producer, favors both Rose and the Tiffany Network. But the piece that was running as I washed the sleep from my eyes was simply unbelievable.

It was about the two unfortunate british tourists detained by Homeland Security over jokes on Twitter about “destroying America” (a colloquialism for partying – think “tear up the town”) and “digging up Marilyn Monroe” whilst in Hollywood. DHS cuffed the poor kids and tossed them in a detention center with “inner city criminals,” according to reports, then sent them back home. Access denied.(I tweeted the story when it happened, then forgot about it.)

Silly stuff, but also serious – I mean, if DHS can’t tell a 140-character colloquialism from a real threat….(Slap Forehead Now). CBS had managed to get an interview with the unfortunate couple, who were back in the UK and most likely never able to travel here again.

The interview wasn’t what woke me up this morning, it was what CBS’s “Terrorism Expert” had to say afterwards. Apparently Homeland Security claims it is NOT monitoring Twitter and other social media, instead, it got a “tip” about the tweets, and that’s why the couple was detained. The on-air “expert,” who used to run counter-terror for the LAPD and was an official at DHS as well, was asked point blank if the US Government was “monitoring social media.” He flatly denied it. (His comments, oddly, were cut out of the piece that’s now on the web and embedded above).

I do not believe him. Do you? And if they really are not – why not? Shouldn’t they be? I was curious to your thoughts, so here’s a poll:

And then, here’s the next one. Regardless of whether you think it actually IS monitoring….

In Which I Officially Declare RSS Is Truly Alive And Well.

By - February 02, 2012

I promise, for at least 18 months, to not bring this topic up again. But I do feel the need to report to all you RSS lovin’ freaks out there that the combined interactions on my two posts – 680 and still counting –  have exceeded the reach of my RSS feed (which clocked in at a miserable 664 the day I posted the first missive).

And as I said in my original post:

If I get more comments and tweets on this post than I have “reach” by Google Feedburner status, well, that’s enough for me to pronounce RSS Alive and Well (by my own metric of nodding along, of course). If it’s less than 664, I’m sorry, RSS is Well And Truly Dead. And it’s all your fault.

For those of you who don’t know what on earth I’m talking about, but care enough to click, here are the two posts:

Once Again, RSS Is Dead. But ONLY YOU Can Save It!

RSS Update: Not Dead, But On The Watch List

OK, now move along. Nothing to see here. No web standards have died. Happy Happy! Joy Joy!

It’s Not Whether Google’s Threatened. It’s Asking Ourselves: What Commons Do We Wish For?

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If Facebook’s IPO filing does anything besides mint a lot of millionaires, it will be to shine a rather unsettling light on a fact most of us would rather not acknowledge: The web as we know it is rather like our polar ice caps: under severe, long-term attack by forces of our own creation.

And if we lose the web, well, we lose more than funny cat videos and occasionally brilliant blog posts. We lose a commons, an ecosystem, a “tangled bank” where serendipity, dirt, and iterative trial and error drive open innovation. Google’s been the focus of most of this analysis (hell, I called Facebook an “existential threat” to Google on Bloomberg yesterday), but I’d like to pull back for a second.

This post has been brewing in me for a while, but I was moved to start writing after reading this piece in Time:

Is Google In Danger of Being Shut Out of the Changing Internet?

The short answer is Hell Yes. But while I’m a fan of Google (for the most part), to me the piece is focused too narrowly on what might happen to one company, rather than to the ecosystem which allowed that company to thrive. It does a good job of outlining the challenges Google faces, which are worth recounting (and expanding upon) as a proxy for the larger question I’m attempting to elucidate:

1. The “old” Internet is shrinking, and being replaced by walled gardens over which Google’s crawlers can’t climb. Sure, Google can crawl Facebook’s “public pages,” but those represent a tiny fraction of the “pages” on Facebook, and are not informed by the crucial signals of identity and relationship which give those pages meaning. Similarly, Google can crawl the “public pages” of Apple’s iTunes store on the web, but all the value creation in the mobile iOS appworld is behind the walls of Fortress Apple. Google can’t see that information, can’t crawl it, and can’t “make it universally available.” Same for Amazon with its Kindle universe, Microsoft’s Xbox and mobile worlds, and many others.

2. Google’s business model depends on the web remaining open, and given #1 above, that model is imperiled. It’s damn hard to change business models, but with Google+ and Android, the company is trying. The author of the Time piece is skeptical of Google’s chances of recreating the Open Web with these new tools, however.

He makes a good point. But to me, the real issue isn’t whether Google’s business model is under attack by forces outside its control. Rather, the question is far more existential in nature: What kind of a world do we want to live in?

I’m going to say that again, because it bears us really considering: What kind of a world do we want to live in? As we increasingly leverage our lives through the world of digital platforms, what are the values we wish to hold in common? I wrote about this issue a month or so ago:  On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme. In that piece I outlined a number of core values that I believe are held in common when it comes to what I call the “open” or “independent” web. They also bear repeating (I go into more detail in the post, should you care to read it):

- No gatekeepers. The web is decentralized. Anyone can start a web site. No one has the authority (in a democracy, anyway) to stop you from putting up a shingle.

An ethos of the commons. The web developed over time under an ethos of community development, and most of its core software and protocols are royalty free or open source (or both). There wasn’t early lockdown on what was and wasn’t allowed. This created chaos, shady operators, and plenty of dirt and dark alleys. But it also allowed extraordinary value to blossom in that roiling ecosystem.

- No preset rules about how data is used. If one site collects information from or about a user of its site, that site has the right to do other things with that data, assuming, again, that it’s doing things that benefit all parties concerned.

- Neutrality. No one site on the web is any more or less accessible than any other site. If it’s on the web, you can find it and visit it.

- Interoperability. Sites on the web share common protocols and principles, and determine independently how to work with each other. There is no centralized authority which decides who can work with who, in what way.

I find it hard to argue with any of the points above as core values of how the Internet should work. And it is these values that created Google and allowed the company to become the world beater is has been these past ten or so years. But if you look at this list of values, and ask if Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the thousands of app makers align with them, I am afraid the answer is mostly no. And that’s the bigger issue I’m pointing to: We’re slowly but surely creating an Internet that is abandoning its original values for…well, for something else that as yet is not well defined.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. I’m not out to “save Google,” I’m focused on trying to understand what the Internet would look like if we don’t pay attention to our core shared values.

And it’s not fair to blame Apple, Facebook, Amazon, or app makers here. In conversations with various industry folks over the past few months, it’s become clear that there are more than business model issues stifling the growth of the open web. In no particular order, they are:

1. Engineering. It’s simply too hard to create super-great experiences on the open web. For many high value products and services, HTML and its associated scripting languages, including HTML5, are messy, incomplete, and are not as fast, clean, and elegant as coding for iOS or the Facebook ecosystem. I’ve heard this over and over again. This means developers are drawn to the Apple universe first, web second. Value accrues where engineering efforts pay off in a more compelling user experience.

2. Mobility. The PC-based HTML web is hopelessly behind mobile in any number of ways. It has no eyes (camera), no ears (audio input), no sense of place (GPS/location data). Why would anyone want to invest in a web that’s deaf, dumb, blind, and stuck in one place?

3. Experience. The open web is full of spam, shady operators, and blatant falsehoods. Outside of a relatively small percentage of high quality sites, most of the web is chock full of popup ads and other interruptive come-ons. It’s nearly impossible to find signal in that noise, and the web is in danger of being overrun by all that crap. In the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just…better.

So, does that mean the Internet is going to become a series of walled gardens, each subject to the whims of that garden’s liege?

I don’t think so. Scroll up and look at that set of values again. I see absolutely no reason why they can not and should not be applied to how we live our lives inside the worlds of Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the countless apps we have come to depend upon. But it requires a shift in our relationship to the Internet. It requires that we, as the co-creators of value through interactions, data, and sharing, take responsibility for ensuring that the Internet continues to be a commons.

I expect this will be less difficult that it sounds. It won’t take a political movement or a wholesale migration from Facebook to more open services. Instead, I believe in the open market of ideas, of companies and products and services which identify  the problems I’ve outlined above, and begin to address them through innovative new approaches that solve for them. I believe in the Internet. Always have, and always will.

Related:

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

We Need An Identity Re-Aggregator (That We Control)

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow

A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy

The InterDependent Web

On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme

Facebook Files, Initial Thoughts

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Not since Google’s 2004 filing have so many journalists sped-read one document at the same time, eager to glean any possible insight unique to their particular point of view or publication and rush to post it before anyone else.

Yes, I’m one of those journalists, I suppose, but I know I have to read this thing for any number of reasons, so I may as well use the race as an excuse to force myself into action. I certainly won’t be the first to post, because I had to play pundit on Bloomberg TV this afternoon.

I’ll pore through the S1 in detail in the next day or two, and offer my thoughts then. Meanwhile, here’s my short take from the shoot.

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Tangled Bank

By - January 31, 2012

After pushing my way through a number of difficult but important reads, it was a pleasure to rip through Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. I consider Steven a friend and colleague, and that will color my review of his most recent work (it came out in paperback last Fall). In short, I really liked the book. There, now Steven will continue to accept my invitations to lunch…

Steven is author of seven books, and I admire his approach to writing. He mixes story with essay, and has an elegant, spare style that I hope to emulate in my next book. If What We Hath Wrought is compared to his work, I’ll consider that a win.

Where Good Ideas Come From is an interesting, fast paced read that outlines the kinds of environments which spawn world-changing ideas. In a sense, this book is the summary of “lessons learned” from several of Johnson’s previous books, which go deep into one really big idea – The Invention of Air, for example, or  the discovery of a cure for cholera. It’s also a testament to another of Johnson’s obsessions – the modern city, which he points out is a far more likely seedbed of great ideas than the isolated suburb or cabin-on-a-lake-somewhere.

Johnson draws a parallel between great cities and the open web – both allow for many ideas to bump up against each other, breed, and create new forms. 

Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas.

While more than a year old, Where Good Ideas Come From is an important and timely book, because the conclusions Johnson draw are instructive to the digital world we are building right now – will it be one that fosters what Zittrain calls generativity, or are we feeding ecosystems that are closed in nature? Johnson writes:

…openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms. Those patterns of innovation deserve recognition—in part because it’s intrinsically important to understand why good ideas emerge historically, and in part because by embracing these patterns we can build environments that do a better job of nurturing good ideas…

…If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. ….when one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

I couldn’t help but think of the data and commercial restrictions imposed by Facebook and Apple as I read those words. As I’ve written over and over on this site, I’m dismayed by the world we’re building inside Apple’s “appworld,” on the one hand, and the trend toward planting our personal and corporate taproots too deeply in the soils of Facebook, on the other. Johnson surveys centuries of important, world changing ideas, often relating compelling personal narratives on the way to explaining how those ideas came to be not through closed, corporate R&D labs, but through unexpected collisions between passions, hobbies, coffee house conversations, and seeming coincidence. If you’re ever stuck, Johnson advises, go outside and bump into things for a while. I couldn’t agree more.

One concept Johnson elucidates is the “adjacent possible,” a theory attributed to biologist Stuart Kauffman. In short, the adjacent possible is the space inhabited by “what could be” based on what currently is. In biology and chemistry, for example, it’s the potential for various combinations of molecules to build self-replicating proteins. When that occurs, new adjacent possibilities open up, to the point of an explosion in life and order.

Johnson applies this theory to ideas, deftly demonstrating how Darwin’s fascination with the creation of coral reefs led – over years – to what is perhaps the most powerful idea of modernity – evolution. He concludes that while most of us understand Darwin’s great insight as mostly about “survival of the fittest,” perhaps its greatest insight is how it has “revealed the collaborative and connective forces at work in the natural world.” Darwin’s famous metaphor for this insight is the tangled bank:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . .

Johnson also extolls the concept of “liquid networks” – where information freely flows between many minds, of “slow hunches,” where ideas develop over long periods of time, as well as the importance of noise, serendipity, and error in the development of good ideas. He explores “exaptation” – the repurposing of one idea for another use, and the concept of “platforms” that allow each of these concepts – from liquid networks to serendipity and exaptation – to blossom (Twitter is cited as such a platform).

Johnson concludes:

Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincaré said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection. So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas—whether those environments are in schools or corporations or governments or our own personal lives—we need to keep that history in mind, and not fall back on the easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only reliable source of good ideas. Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation. But so has the reef.

Amen, I say. I look forward to our great tech companies – Apple and Facebook amongst them – becoming more tangled bank than carefully pruned garden.

A nice endcap to the book is a survey Johnson took of great ideas across history. He places each idea on an XY grid where an idea is either generated by an individual or a network of individuals (the X axis) and/or a commercial or non-commercial environment (the Y Axis). The results are pretty clear: ideas thrive in “non-market/networked” environments.

Johnson's chart of major ideas emerging during the 19th and 20th centuries

This doesn’t mean those ideas don’t become the basis for commerce – quite the opposite in fact. But this is a book about how good ideas are created, not how they might be exploited. And we’d be well advised to pay attention to that as we consider how we organize our corporations, our governments, and ourselves – we have some stubborn problems to solve, and we’ll need a lot of good ideas if we’re going to solve them.

Highly recommended.

Next up on the reading list: Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky, and Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It, by Larry Lessig.

####

Other works I’ve reviewed:

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

 

What Happens When Sharing Is Turned Off? People Don’t Dance.

By - January 30, 2012

One of only two photos to emerge from last night's Wilco concert, image Eric Henegen

Last night my wife and I did something quite rare – we went to a concert on a Sunday night, in San Francisco, with three other couples (Wilco, playing at The Warfield). If you don’t have kids and don’t live in the suburbs, you probably think we’re pretty lame, and I suppose compared to city dwellers, we most certainly are. But there you have it.

So why am I telling you about it? Because something odd happened at the show: Wilco enforced a “no smartphone” rule. Apparently lead singer Jeff Tweedy hates looking out at the audience and seeing folks waving lit phones back at him. Members of the Warfield staff told me they didn’t like the policy, but they enforced it  - quite strictly, I might add. It created a weird vibe – folks didn’t even take out their phones for fear they might be kicked out for taking a picture of the concert. (A couple of intrepid souls did sneak a pic in, as you can see at left…)

And… no one danced, not till the very end, anyway. I’ve seen Wilco a few times, and I’ve never seen a more, well, motionless crowd. But more on that later.

Now, I have something of a history when it comes to smart phones and concerts. Back in 2008 I was a founding partner in a new kind of social music experiment we called “CrowdFire.” In my post explaining the idea, I wrote:

Over the course of several brainstorming sessions… an idea began to take shape based on a single insight: personal media is changing how we all experience music. (when I was at Bonnaroo in 2007), everyone there had a cel phone with a camera. Or a Flip. Or a digital camera. And when an amazing moment occurred, more folks held up their digital devices than they did lighters. At Bonnaroo, I took a picture that nails it for me – the image at left. A woman capturing an incredible personal memory of an incredible shared experience (in this case, it was Metallica literally blowing people’s minds), the three screens reflecting the integration of physical, personal, and shared experiences. That image informed our logo, as you can see (below).

So – where did all those experiences go (Searchblog readers, of course, know I’ve been thinking about this for a while)? What could be done with them if they were all put together in one place, at one time, turned into a great big feed by a smart platform that everyone could access? In short, what might happen if someone built a platform to let the crowd – the audience – upload their experiences of the music to a great big database, then mix, mash, and meld them into something utterly new?

Thanks to partners like Microsoft, Intel, SuperFly, Federated Media and scores of individuals, CrowdFire actually happened at Outside Lands, both in 2008 and in 2009. It was a massive effort – the first year literally broke AT&T’s network. But it was clear we were onto something. People want to capture and share the experience of being at a live concert, and the smart phone was clearly how they were now doing it.

It was the start of something – brainstorming with several of my friends prior to CrowdFire’s birth, we imagined a world where every shareable experience became data that could be recombined to create fungible alternate realities. Heady stuff, stuff that is still impossible, but I feel will eventually become our reality as we careen toward a future of big data and big platforms.

Since those early days, the idea of CrowdFire has certainly caught on. In early 2008, we had to build the whole platform from scratch, but now, folks use services like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare to share their experiences. Many artists share back, sending out photos and tweets from on stage. Most major festivals and promoters have some kind of fan photo/input service that they promote as well. CrowdFire was a great idea, and maybe, had I not been overwhelmed with running FM, we might have turned it into a real company/service that could have integrated all this output and created something big in the world. But it was a bit ahead of its time.

What has happened since that first Outside Lands is that at every concert I’ve attended, I’ve noticed the crowd’s increasing connection to their smart phones – taking pictures, group texting, tweeting, and sharing the moments with their extended networks across any number of social services. It’s hard to find an experience more social than a big concert, and the thousands of constantly lit smartphone screens are a testament to that fact, as are the constant streams of photos and status updates coming out of nearly every show I’ve seen, or followed enviously online.

Which brings me back to last night. I was unaware of the policy, so as Wilco opened at the sold-out Warfield, something felt off to me. Here were two thousand San Francisco hipsters, all turned attentively toward the stage – but most of them had their hands in their pockets! As the band went into the impossible-not-to-move-to “Art of Almost” and “I Might,” I started wondering what was up – why weren’t people at least swaying?! The music was extraordinary, the sound system perfectly tuned. But everyone seemed very intent on…well…being intent. They stared forward, hands in pocket, nodded their heads a bit, but no one danced. It was a rather odd vibe. It was as if the crowd had been admonished to not be too … expressive.

Then it hit me. Nobody had their phone out. I turned to a security guard and asked why no one was holding up a phone. That’s when I learned of Wilco’s policy.

It seemed to me that the rule had the unintended consequence of muting the crowd’s ability to connect to the joy of the moment. Odd, that. We’re so connected to these devices and their ability to reflect our own sense of self that when we’re deprived of them, we feel somehow less…human.

My first reaction was “Well, this sucks,” but on second thought, I got why Tweedy wanted his audience to focus on the experience in the room, instead of watching and sharing it through the screens of their smartphones. By the encore, many people were dancing – they had loosened up. But in the end, I’m not sure I agree with Wilco – they’re fighting the wrong battle (and losing extremely valuable word of mouth in the process, but that’s another post).

There are essentially two main reasons to hold a phone up at a show. First, to capture a memory for yourself, a reminder of the moment you’re enjoying. And second, to share that moment with someone – to express your emotions socially. Both seem perfectly legitimate to me. (I’m not down with doing email or taking a call during a show, I’ll admit).
But the smart phone isn’t a perfect device, as we all know. It forces the world into a tiny screen. It runs out of battery, bandwidth, and power. It distracts us from the world around us. There are too many steps – too much friction – between capturing the things we are experiencing right now and the sharing of those things with people we care about.

But I sense that the sea of smart phones lit up at concerts is a temporary phenomenon. The integration of technology, sharing, and social into our physical world, on the other hand, well that ain’t going away. In the future, it’s going to be much harder to enforce policies like Wilco’s, because the phone will be integrated into our clothing, our jewelry, our eyeglasses, and possibly even ourselves. When that happens – when I can take a picture through my glasses, preview it, then send it to Instagram using gestures from my fingers, or eyeblinks, or a wrinkle of my nose – when technology becomes truly magical – asking people to turn it off is going to be the equivalent of asking them not to dance – to not express their joy at being in the moment.

And why would anyone want to do that?

RSS Update: Not Dead, But On The Watch List

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Since I posted my call to action last week, nearly 600 folks have raised their hands and told me they’re reading this site via RSS. That’s pretty good, given my actual request was buried under 500 words of rambling conjecture, and my Disqus commenting system went down for portions of the first day. Not to mention, my RSS feed has grown by about 90% since the last time I posted the request, yet the number of comments (plus Tweets and other responses) was three times higher. It was the most comments I’ve ever gotten on any post, period.

So I think it’s fair to say the call was answered (we missed the overall number by about 85 votes, but there’s still time). For at least a very vocal minority of readers, RSS is still a critical tool. But, reading through the comments, it’s clear RSS has major issues, and that no one is really expecting those issues to get resolved. Most of you depend on Google Reader, and feel like the Google+ integration has been a step backward. And those of you who are publishers feel like Feedburner (also a Google product) is neglected and untrustworthy, and that there are simply no good monetization tools.

But a ton of you thanked me for making my feed full text, and I won’t be stopping that anytime soon. Thanks all, and if you haven’t left a comment on the original thread, please do! If we get to 664, I’ll feel somehow more complete!

For Posterity

By - January 27, 2012

I had to post this image from Twitter.

 

 

There. If this continues, I figure I’ll be at least in a good negotiating position come the Rapture.